The muscle aches don’t allow Ray Cordova to be on his feet for more than 45 minutes at a time. He often gets winded walking from the parking lot into a store.
The 50-year-old is experiencing swelling, he has gained 30 pounds in two months, and doctors are stumped.
“I wonder ‘am I ever going to get over this? Am I ever going to be right again?’” Cordova asks. “It’s been one hell of a challenge, life took a 180.”
Cordova is what’s known as a long hauler, someone who recovered from COVID-19 but, weeks or months later, still experiences a laundry list of lingering symptoms.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of New Mexicans affected by the condition struggle to get back to their usual routine and worry about their uncertain future.
Meanwhile, doctors and researchers at the University of New Mexico and throughout the world try to figure out the science behind these symptoms in hopes of better treating them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently partnered with several universities to conduct a two-year study on the outcomes, including these lingering symptoms, following a COVID-19 infection.
So much unknown
Dr. Alisha Parada, medical director for the COVID-19 follow-up clinic at UNM Hospital, said she’s worried about the unknown.
“We don’t know how much damage the virus can do even in the mild cases — people who are not hospitalized — who come up weeks and months later with some of these symptoms,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know and that unknown is the biggest concern.”
Parada said studies have found that between 20% and 60% of those infected become long haulers. Parada said she has treated multiple people who were diagnosed at the beginning of the pandemic and are still having symptoms.
She said it’s unclear if the condition could be permanent.
“At this point, with COVID, anything is possible. Because everything we thought we knew, we didn’t know with this virus,” Parada said. “We’re concerned that it could potentially cause lingering lifelong issues for some people.”
She said the symptoms vary and can include fatigue, numbness, loss of taste and smell, shortness of breath, headaches, muscle aches, hair loss and brain fog.
In some cases, Parada said, long haulers end up “quite debilitated” in their daily lives and, in rare cases, end up hospitalized due to lung damage or heart complications.
Parada also said the severity of symptoms are not equal to how bad the infection was and there are documented cases of asymptomatic people becoming long haulers.
“There’s just not one clear-cut explanation,” Parada said.
She said, in some cases, the condition could be attributed to underlying medical conditions, undiagnosed medical issues or skipping doctor’s appointments due to the pandemic.
She urged everyone, regardless of their age or activity levels, to follow guidelines and get vaccinated because anyone can become a long hauler.
“I’ve been taking care of patients who were marathon runners or who would hike La Luz every weekend — who were extremely healthy — and are still struggling to get back to their baseline months later,” Parada said.
Tessa Beasley, from Albuquerque, used to rock climb five days a week but can no longer find the strength.
“I get really winded and I get really weak, it’s not only not safe but it’s just not fun,” the 28-year-old said. “I’m trying not to push myself too much and take it easy — a day at a time — so I don’t end up in the hospital, because there’s so many unknowns.”
More than a month after recovering from a three-week COVID-19 infection, Beasley said she still has an “extremely tight pain” in her chest and can feel out of breath just talking.
Often, her lungs whistle “like a little bird.” Her sense of taste and smell returned, but some things have a strange chemical aftertaste.
“Some days you feel really good and some days you don’t,” she said. “It’s a little depressing and upsetting when you’re an active person … It makes me feel like I won’t ever be able to get back to where I was, but I’m hopeful I will be.”
Beasley said she feels lucky to be alive as so many other cases end tragically.
“I’m extremely grateful … and I am aware of the thousands of other people who have it so much worse than me,” she said.
‘Can’t get rid of it’
Cordova, who lives in Portales, said the condition has halted a decadeslong coaching career, most recently as the head baseball coach in Dora.
“I turned my keys back because I just don’t feel I can fulfill the obligation,” he said. “It’s been a huge part of my life, it’s been everything.”
Cordova, who has asthma and high blood pressure, said he had never before experienced the body aches, swelling, brain fog and breathing issues that followed his COVID-19 hospitalization — which resulted in pneumonia — last October.
“I’m swelling like a blowfish, I’ve never had anything like it before,” he said.
Cordova, a substitute teacher, said that beyond the severe swelling in his ankles and hands he has soreness from the “feet up” by the day’s end.
After six CT scans on several organs — one of which ruled out congestive heart failure — he said doctors are no closer to an answer.
Cordova said he can’t even get through cooking a full meal, another passion of his, due to the soreness in his back.
“I just can’t get rid of it,” he said.
Despite all that, Cordova said there is one silver lining.
“Life has been so different but, on the blessing side of things, I quit drinking as a result of COVID,” Cordova said. “God gave me a second chance and I feel I have to do the right thing with it and live life better. So I’ve been 160 days sober, it’s a good feeling … One of the perks of COVID.”